Vermont pot penalties will soon be the center of Senate debate. The body is expected to pass a bill making possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana a ticketable, but not criminal, offense.
"I think marijuana has always been subject to overreaction," said John Pierce, the interim director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health and Addiction Recovery.
Pierce says marijuana is not the stuff of "Reefer Madness" propaganda films. But he says decriminalization could still cause big problems.
"If marijuana turns out to be only one-tenth the scourge that we have been suffering from-- from alcohol and tobacco, then it's a bad idea," Pierce said.
"I do believe this will increase access," said Patty McCarthy Metcalf, the director of Friends of Recovery Vermont.
McCarthy Metcalf worries the move will make it easier for kids to get pot. She says Vermont has the highest prevalence of marijuana use in the nation for both kids and adults-- and expects decriminalization to compound the problem.
"I've been smoking since I was 19. I'm 26 now," said Robert Plunkett of Hinesburg. "I don't think it's really going to change much of anything."
"I have (smoked) in the past," said Suzette Grilley of South Burlington. Asked why she stopped, Grilley replied, " I had kids and just became more grown up."
"I think it's a horrible idea. I think still it's a gateway drug," said Corey Bertrand of Franklin.
Much of the academic research on decriminalization and its effect on usage suggest penalties for possession, whether stiff or lax, do little to alter marijuana habits. A 1981 survey found only 4 percent of adults cited fear of arrest or unavailability as factors preventing use.
But many addiction specialists worry about the message decriminalization sends, and the potential hit to public health.
The decriminalization bill passed by the House earlier this year is expected to breeze through the Senate and be signed into law by the governor. The measure would penalize underage smokers similarly to drinkers, and would not provide leniency to stoned drivers.
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